British MPs have tonight voted to back plans by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to legalize same-sex marriage. The House of Commons voted in favor of the proposals by 400 votes to 175, and the right for gay couples to marry is now all but certain to become the law of the land (unlike in the U.S., there’s no provision for local or regional governments to legislate on the issue).
Cameron has attempted to make a conservative case for gay marriage, claiming it will make the institution of marriage stronger, rather than weakening it. But while the result was a victory for him, it came at some cost: his party is deeply divided on the issue, and more than half of Tory MPs either voted against the bill or abstained (the government allowed a “free vote” on the issue, meaning MPs were not compelled to vote along party lines).
The changes will primarily affect civil marriages, although some smaller religious organizations, including the Quakers, have said they will conduct same-sex weddings. To counter fears from the Church of England and other churches that they will be forced to marry gay couples, the legislation includes a provision that no religious organization will be compelled to do so.
However, the government has tied itself in knots in order to push the legislation through. Bizarrely the legislation specifically bans the CofE from offering same-sex marriage – meaning that, even if the church in the future wanted to permit gay weddings, it couldn’t. Opponents of the plans, meanwhile, fear the legislation will not stand up to scrutiny in the European Court of Human Rights, and that in time every church will be forced to offer gay weddings.
Cameron has insisted that he wants to introduce gay marriage because “it’s the right thing to do.” But many Tory MPs believe the move is simply another step in Cameron’s bid to “modernize” the party, and “detoxify” the Conservative brand; the proposals did not appear in the party’s last election manifesto, and the issue is a low priority with most voters.
Cameron’s leadership on the issue is unlikely to do him much harm at the ballot box. Opinion polls show a majority of Britons who express an opinion are in favor of same-sex marriage, and while some polls have suggested that the controversy will cost the Tories more supporters than it gains them, the next general election is more than two years away, and will be dominated by the economy and, to a lesser extent, the UK’s relationship with Europe.
Religious groups opposed to the redefinition of marriage might be forgiven for wondering how Cameron squares his stance with his call just a few weeks ago for the Church of England to help counter the nation’s “slow-motion moral collapse.” Cameron would argue that the two points of view are not incompatible, but many Christians will see tonight’s vote as another victory for those who want to marginalize religious belief in Britain – and that’s before the law of unintended consequences kicks in, as it surely will.